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Lebanon opens a page of stability with strong Syrian immigration

The experience of the civil war in the 80's has prompted to reach agreements that facilitate stability. Lebanon, which does not want to be dragged into the war in Syria, has a new president, the Christian Michel Aoun.

Ferran Canet-January 9, 2017-Reading time: 5 minutes

With the whirlwind of events that have transpired in the world in recent months, and particularly in the Middle East with Syria, the news that Lebanon has a new president, Michel Aoun, opens a page of cautious optimism and stability.

Michel Aoun was elected with the support of 83 out of 128 parliamentarians on October 31, thus closing more than two years in which the country was without a president. The serious situation in the Middle East could have led to fears that Lebanon would be directly immersed in the conflict, but so far it has managed to keep the problems inside the country very sporadic.

However, the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the war in Syria, the conflict in Iraq, and even the problems in Yemen have influenced the Lebanese situation, if only because Hezbollah (a political party as well as a militia) supports Iran in the various conflicts in which it intervenes.

All in all, the fact that Lebanon is still at peace is astonishing. One cannot forget, moreover, that since the outbreak of the war in Syria, the Lebanese have seen more than 1.5 million Syrians seek refuge in Lebanon (with more than 1 million refugees officially registered since April 2014).

Discussion on settlements

If one takes into account that the local population of Lebanon is about 4.5 million inhabitants, there is a ratio of Syrian refugees of about 200 per thousand inhabitants (the highest in the world, three times that of Jordan, the second country in that sad ranking). To these should be added some 450,000 Palestinians.

Some experts have offered clues about Lebanon's reception capacity. For example, the country has a tradition of not locking refugees in camps, in part because of a long history of labor relations. Since the 1990s, many Syrians came to work in Lebanon, and this has facilitated some integration.

The policy of not housing people in refugee camps is due to security concerns, says Tamirace Fakhoury, a university professor of political science. The government fears the camps will become sanctuaries for terrorism, although it is a matter of debate. There are some informal settlements in the border area. Y UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), and some NGOs believe that camps run by them would provide better living conditions for Syrian refugees.

In reality, Lebanon does not have the capacity to fully integrate such a large number of refugees, and is really overstretched, so there are restrictions. On the other hand, municipalities often complain that there is no coherent national policy, and they formulate their own rules.

Experts also point out that a better coordinated response with Europe in analyzing legal avenues for these migration flows would be positive. A legal governance approach is needed to deal with a migration crisis such as the one caused by Syria.

Stability in Lebanon

If the data provided above were not enough to describe a potentially explosive situation, perhaps a historical reminder is. Until 2005, Syrian troops occupied Lebanon, having entered the country at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war (in 1976) under an Arab League mandate. For almost thirty years, many Lebanese saw the Syrian soldiers as invaders, and the Damascus government as responsible for all kinds of abuses and killings.

Nevertheless, the social situation is not as tense as one might imagine. Although it is true that part of the population does not welcome the presence of so many refugees. Mainly for fear that the situation will continue for years, which would disfigure the already rather unstable balance between the various social groups, shaped by membership of a particular religion.

Electoral law

For some years now, there has been talk of changing the electoral law to adapt it to a demographic situation different from the one that existed at the time the current law was made (1960). However, this reform looks slow and complicated, and it does not seem that the solution will be achieved in the coming months, before the next parliamentary elections (which should have been held in 2013, but have been delayed twice, and should now be in May 2017).

To understand why the country has not been dragged into the Syrian problem, one factor in particular must be taken into account. The experience of the civil war of the 1980s means that, in the face of a really tense situation, the country's leaders make an effort to reach agreements that prevent the fire from igniting and potentially engulfing everything. Another important element is that 40% of the Lebanese population is Christian, so that the Sunni-Shiite (Saudi Arabia-Iran) conflict finds a strong intermediary, absent in the other countries of the region.

Christians, essential for stability

Lebanon is an exception in the Middle East for several reasons, but one of the main ones is that Christians are not only not a small minority, nor are they simply tolerated or recognized, but they are an essential part of the social fabric and the political game.

At a time when we have witnessed the almost total reduction of the presence of Christians in Iraq, and now in Syria, Lebanon insists on its desire to be an example of coexistence (not perfect, true, but much better than one might think) for the whole region.

Benedict XVI's last trip before his resignation was precisely to Lebanon, and it was an opportunity for the Lebanese to brag of this ability to coexist and to welcome.

However, the current challenges may exceed Lebanon's capabilities alone. This is why criticism of the Western powers' handling of the situation is not uncommon, especially the indifference with which they have reacted to the rapid disappearance of Christians from the region (if not directly provoked).

The voice of the Patriarch Lebanon

Cardinal Bechara Raï, Patriarch of Antioch and Metropolitan of the Maronite Church, has been one of the voices that have not ceased to call for a responsible attitude on the part of politicians, to put aside personal interests, party and communityto be at the service of the entire country and all its citizens.

But their efforts, for now, have had little effect. Perhaps the most remarkable is the reconciliation between General Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea. They are two of the most important Christian leaders, who clashed during the last years of the civil war, writing one of the saddest pages of Lebanese history. But their reconciliation has been key to General Aoun's accession to the presidency.

However, beyond a few facts, there continues to be a feeling that important decisions in the country are made mainly considering the economic benefits that politicians can obtain, or the interests of the countries that support those politicians.

A new page has been opened, although the words, for now, are the same, and the narrative thread has not changed much either. The same surnames, the same families, dominate the political and economic world, and the citizen who is not aligned with any of these families, it is left, for the time being, to continue waiting.

The authorFerran Canet

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